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The displaced and invisible elderly in Colombia

Photo credit: EU/ECHO/FAO

2014 marks 30 years of the ‘Cartagena Declaration on Refugees’, a regional document that established norms for the international protection of refugees. After Syria, Colombia has the most internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, and the elderly are among the most vulnerable and affected. In this story, our partners at HelpAge International bring light to the situation and what's being done to increase awareness and improve access to assistance and protection for this demographic.

The HelpAge International team in Bogotá

Older people who have been displaced in Colombia's long-running civil war are among the most vulnerable, yet they often remain invisible in the humanitarian response provided by government and non-government agencies.

Don Bernardino is a 71-year-old farmer from south-western Colombia. He and his wife were forced to abandon their land and their way of life in late 2009 after an armed conflict took place near their property. They now live in Cali with his daughter.

"We lived in tranquility on our farm, where I raised and educated my children. We lived on what we grew on the farm. We had a beautiful banana plantation and sugar cane, fruit, chocolate, beans and yuca (mandioc). I was forced to leave against my will”, he says.

Don Bernardino is just one of thousands of people over 60 who have been uprooted by Colombia's decades-long civil war. It is difficult to ascertain the precise percentage of older people who have been forcibly displaced by the armed conflict. This is partly because information collected by authorities and organisations is not sufficiently disaggregated by age.

Like Don Bernardino, most older displaced people  are rural farmers of indigenous or Afro-Colombian descent. Those who flee to the cities suffer the most from cultural upheaval, loss of livelihoods and assets, deteriorating health, and break-up of families.

Many older displaced people take on care of grandchildren because their parents have moved away or been killed. In the city of Cali, more than a third of older people receiving assistance from the voluntary organisation Fundación Paz y Bien arrive with children in their care. Most of them are grandmothers, with an average of three children.

Hunger and despair

Over 5 million Colombians have been internally displaced due to continuing violence, according to government figures. Each year at least 150 000 more leave their homes. This has created the world's second largest internally displaced population (after Syria).

Three of the five departments most affected by the ongoing crisis are Nariño, Valle del Cauca and Cauca. This is where HelpAge has its largest projects.

A range of humanitarian assistance and other forms of social protection exists to support displaced people in Colombia. The government provides three months of emergency support to people who become displaced. In exceptional circumstances, this may be extended for another three months. It is usually older people who are eligible for an extension because of the difficulties they face in re-establishing their livelihoods. The poorest older people are eligible to receive a small, social (non-contributory) pension equivalent to a maximum of €28 a month. A supplementary food programme also exists. However, the programmes are mutually exclusive -people cannot receive both.

Many older people do not receive either. Less than a quarter of the older population classified as vulnerable receive either allowance.

On top of that, the pension can be extremely difficult for displaced older people to access. The pension is delivered through municipal governments. An older person who has moved to another municipality must first cancel their registration from the list of pension recipients in the municipality from which they have been forcibly displaced, and then register in the municipality of reception.

HelpAge International's work in Cali, with funding from the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and other donors, has reinforced the evidence that many older displaced people are unable to claim these benefits, and are living a life of hunger, disorientation and despair.

No special attention

Lack of data broken down by age is a key factor contributing to the neglect of displaced older people. The lack of awareness of their rights and the practical difficulties in claiming them compound the problem. "Life can get very complicated for older people who have to move about with small grandchildren", said a local government representative in the city of El Valle. "On top of this, many older people are illiterate, which hinders access to their rights, especially when the staff who sees their cases are not aware of their specific needs. No special attention is given to older people".


Colombia is one of ECHO's largest operations in Latin America & the Caribbean, along with Haiti. The main beneficiaries are refugees and IDPs as well as rural victims of the conflict, with special attention given to vulnerable groups like women, children, the elderly, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. Between 2009 and 2014, ECHO has funded Helpage International in Colombia with €1.3 million in funds to assist older people affected by violence.

Ministers of Latin American countries are gathering on 2-3 December in Brasilia to commemorate 30 years of the ‘Cartagena Declaration on Refugees’, which has been incorporated into the national legislation of 14 South American countries.

Last updated
01/12/2014